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FYI Number 66: May 18, 2006

Questions Continue to be Asked About Scientific Information Policies

Members of Congress continue to express concern about the Administration's policies regarding the dissemination of scientific findings involving research in areas such as climate change. Early this year, controversy erupted over attempts to restrict a NASA researcher from discussing climate change. Although this matter was settled, other concerns were raised about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's policies. More lately, Rep. David Wu (D-OR) requested a Government Accountability Office investigation regarding allegations of similar practices. This week, the National Science Board provided its views on the dissemination of research findings in response to a letter from Senator John McCain (R-AZ). A summary of each of these activities follows:

In January, there were reports that a NASA official attempted to prevent a prominent agency scientist from discussing climate change. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) wrote letters expressing their concern to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Griffin quickly issued an eight-page information dissemination policy, winning praise from Boehlert and Science Committee Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/015.html and http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/036.html. )

Less than a month after the resolution of this matter, Boehlert wrote to Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In this April 7 letter, the full text of which is available at http://www.house.gov/science/press/l09/109-226.htm., Boehlert wrote that he appreciated Lautenbacher's expressed support for "open and unfettered scientific communication." Boehlert then states: "However, it seems clear that, despite your commitment, at least some scientists at NOAA continue to feel that the agency is not encouraging open communication. . . . NOAA's efforts to attract, retain and make full use of the nation's best scientists will be stymied if your scientists and the scientific community at-large believe that NOAA seeks to limit the discussion of climate science and its implications. And the issue of climate change is too important to countenance any scientists feeling intimidated or constrained about discussing the matter, regardless of whether that feeling is the result of specific policy actions or of misimpressions that create a stifling atmosphere." Boehlert recommended NOAA take corrective steps similar to those which NASA instituted.

On May 2, Rep. Wu, Ranking Member of the Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards, wrote to Comptroller General David M. Walker of the Government Accountability Office. Wu is critical of the Bush Administration's information dissemination policies, and previously had asked OSTP Director John Marburger a series of pointed questions at a February hearing. In his letter, Wu stated: "I hereby request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigate allegations of political litmus tests for science appointees, manipulation of scientific findings and reports by political appointees, and politically driven censorship of scientists. These allegations are not confirmed to a single office or agency. Despite administration assurances that these assertions have no merit and that the appropriate authorities were looking into these matters, the allegations have continued." Wu asked GAO to examine six specific areas, requesting a final report by February 2008. This letter can be read at http://www.house.gov/wu/ The issue of "political litmus tests" has been raised before, and was the subject of a National Academies committee report in November 2004 (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/011.html.)

A May 12 National Science Board memorandum contains as an attachment a five-page letter to Senator McCain signed by NSB Chairman Warren Washington. McCain wrote to the Board on February 8 asking it to examine (as stated by Washington in his reply) "existing policies of Federal science agencies concerning the suppression and distortion of research findings and the impact these actions could have on the quality and credibility of future Government-sponsored scientific research results." The Washington letter comments favorably on NASA's newly instituted employee policy, citing it as "one way to effectively articulate an agency's goals of scientific openness." The letter continues, "The survey of the agencies' IG [in-house Inspector Generals] indicated that no reports were issued to indicate scientific information was suppressed or distorted at the agencies involved with the Board's reviews." The letter's "overall conclusion" was as follows: "Upon review as per your request, the Board finds that there exists no consistent Federal policy regarding the dissemination of research results by Federal employees. An overarching set of principles for the communication of scientific information by Government scientists, policy makers, and managers should be developed and issued by the Administration to serve as the umbrella under which each agency would develop its specific policies and procedures. The Board believes a need exists for all Federal agencies that conduct research to establish policies and procedures to encourage open exchange of data and results of research conducted by agency scientists, while preventing the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of research findings and accommodating appropriate agency review. A clear distinction should be made between communicating professional research results and data versus the interpretation of data and results in a context that seeks to influence, through the injection of personal viewpoints, public opinion or the formulation of public policy. Delay in taking these actions may contribute to a potential loss of confidence by the American public and broader research community regarding the quality and credibility of Government sponsored scientific research results." The National Science Board letter may be read at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/meetings/2006/0509/major_actions.pdf

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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